Life on the Fringe

My life as an RPGer

Meander along with Patrick as he obsesses about RPGs and their life-changing influence.

by Patrick King

Every once in a while, I feel like tracing my roots to figure out exactly why I enjoy spending my spare time playing video games, watching anime, and writing about it all. I mean, how did I get this way?

I've been a gamer for a while - a condition I'm sure that I have in common with many of our readers. I grew up playing games, and I could barely contain my excitement when I finally received an NES of my own. I can remember reading an article in Nintendo Power about Final Fantasy when it was first released in the US, and while it seemed interesting, I was far more concerned with the various forms of Mario, Metroid, and Contra.

If only I had known what I was missing.

When I finally pooled together enough money with my siblings, we purchased a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. As kids without jobs, we had to hold out for birthdays and holidays to afford games of our own.

It's strange, knowing that in the first six months of owning the SNES, we only owned about six games. Nowadays, I probably pick up a new game every week. Ironically enough, even though programmers make more money than schoolkids, granting me the ability to purchase every new game as it comes out, I only have fifteen minutes each week to spend actually playing those games.

This is a dilemma for which I'm actively seeking a solution. All of these games shouldn't go unplayed for long - it's just not right.

Since that modest collection of six titles included Super Mario World, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Kart, Contra III, and Gradius III, we had plenty to keep us occupied. Yet even that collection of some of the greatest games ever made begged for company, and we turned to the wonderfully inexpensive nearby rental stores for our new game fix.

Oddly enough, Phar-mor, a Walgreens-like pharmacy/grocery store that is no longer in the St. Louis area, had the finest selection of SNES games that we could find. I probably owe much of my video game obsession to them, for not only did they have hundreds of games available, they only charged a dollar to rent three games for a week.

Since there were three of us - myself and my younger brother and sister - we each were able to choose a game for the week. My brother - the youngest - tended to go for the action titles, while I usually went for whatever new title I was reading about in the various gaming magazines that I read each month.

My sister, Danielle, was the smart one. While she could appreciate shooters and platformers, she wanted something different than what we were used to. In her quest for something different, she picked up Final Fantasy II on a whim. The box was extremely unassuming, with the tried and true Final Fantasy logo proudly gleaming in a field of red. The pictures on the back didn't do much for me - especially after playing the visual masterpieces (of the time) that were Street Fighter II and Contra III.

I didn't have the slightest interest in the game. That is, until I watched her play it. Though the graphics were very abstract - with super-deformed characters, 72 frames of animation in the entire game, and a color palette that was more appropriate for the Genesis than the more powerful SNES - the story drew me in almost instantaneously. I think it was then and there that I went from a fan of games to a truly devoted hardcore gamer. And I believe that it wasn't just the story that made me fall in love with what I now know is Final Fantasy IV.

It was the music. Sony built a very impressive sound processor for the SNES. It was a far cry from the sine wave generated beeps and boops of the NES (though I'd argue that the NES and Genesis had their fair share of good game music, as well), for the SNES was able to produce true wavetable tones in stereo with respectable bass (I still love the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack) and a healthy number of channels.

When I first heard the "Prelude" as the title screen of Final Fantasy IV came up, I realized that there was far more depth to this simple looking game than I originally expected to find. We played the game from start to finish repeatedly for a few weeks straight (not bad for a dollar) and thus began our love of RPGs.

Squaresoft quickly became our favorite developer, and we would save our cash for months to afford their new games when they were finally released. The most expensive game that I've ever purchased, Chrono Trigger, set us back $95 - and it was worth every penny. To this day, I still feel that Final Fantasy VI is the best game in the series. It easily has the best characters of the mythology, and with its traditional Yoshitaka Amano inspired artwork, despite running on a measly SNES, I prefer its visuals over anything else that I've seen in the series since.

As I became more and more addicted to the games, I began recording their soundtracks for myself. It wasn't hard once I found a bookshelf stereo system with RCA audio input jacks. Since the titles lacked any sort of sound test feature (which many games had back in the day), it gave me a reason to replay the entire game from the beginning - a fact that made recording a game's entire soundtrack even more rewarding. The only way to make a good track was to enter an area and let the game sit while the music played on. I used this method of making my own game soundtracks for a few years.

Then I discovered the Internet. Well, we ALL discovered the Internet. My dad worked for St. Louis University at the time, so we had free access to the first few academic servers with our piddly little modem for years. By the time that the World Wide Web finally came about, I was pretty familiar with the net, and within a year or two, I discovered a few websites selling video game music. Animenation was one of them, though I have to admit I that used Game Music Online at first. While they have since cleaned up their act, Game Music Online (at the time) was selling only bootleg soundtracks. As a kid with limited access to imported merchandise (c'mon, this is St. Louis - we still can barely get our hands on imports without going online for them), I was happy enough that I found the CDs, so I bought them without qualms (and without the knowledge that SM Records suck).

Years later (in 1998, actually), I made up for this mistake when I visited Japan for a couple of weeks. Just picture me running around from music store to music store asking, "Bideo Geemu no CD arimasu ka?" "Sore ja, OST?"

My Japanese was rather limited at the time, and I can only attribute my success to the really kind shopkeepers that somehow figured out what the hell I was asking and pointed me in the right direction.

At the end of the trip, I was $500 poorer, but I had amassed a huge collection of game soundtracks - from Castlevania CDs galore, to the hard to find dual disc Zelda III set (published by Sony, no less), along with every Final Fantasy CD that I could find.

That only further fueled my interest in RPGs. I can recall downloading the first video footage of Square's Final Fantasy VII - at first slated for release on the (still in development) Nintendo 64. It was pretty simple, showing a character that looked quite a bit like Locke (from Final Fantasy VI) in a battle scene. I hoped that the series could make the jump to 3D successfully, but I had trouble imagining how the game would feel without the traditional illustrations used for every other Square-produced game.

Back then, RPGs in America did not seem especially popular. It was extremely hard to track down a copy of Final Fantasy IV when we finally decided we should get a copy for ourselves, and my sister ended up mail-ordering both that title as well as Secret of Mana, simply because no local retail store carried them. Most of my fellow gamers saw RPGs as boring, slow, quasi-alternatives to what everyone else was happily playing. 2D fighting games were all the rage, with Street Fighter duking it out with Mortal Kombat, and Sega holding their own with their impressively deep Eternal Champions.

I didn't feel as if a great number of people were looking forward to Final Fantasy VII when it was first announced, but then things have a way of working out differently. By the time that the game finally came out (surprisingly) on the Playstation, it was a mega hit. In fact, it is highly likely that the success of Final Fantasy VII is directly responsible for Sony's rise over Nintendo. Wooing Square away from its longtime partner was a huge coup for Sony, and while the gigantic company also boasted strong support from other gaming giants - such as Capcom with their Resident Evil series, Konami with Castlevania and DDR, and Namco - I believe it was a turning point in the history of Sony, as well as Nintendo.

Suddenly, there was an entirely new generation of fans playing RPGs, many of whom had never heard of Final Fantasy. The fact that the game they were all playing had a number 7 following its title did little to deter them from getting into it, however, and they quickly discovered exactly why people love role-playing games with such ferocity. The niche genre that was formerly only successful in Japan suddenly had a worldwide following, and it paved the way for the domestication of other classic RPGs, such as Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and Skies of Arcadia (the latter admittedly not a Square-made game, but a classic nonetheless).

Today, the casual observer may think that the gaming industry seems to once again be moving away from RPGs and towards more "mature" titles. With innovative (and entertaining) titles like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, there's a chance that some people may feel that the game industry has "grown up", leaving behind the unrealistic games of the past. Perhaps from increased competition in the industry, along with a dwindling fanbase and higher production costs, two of the biggest RPG-making companies in the world, Square and Enix, are now one company.

Yet instead of creating a force to be reckoned with, the two former rivals seem to drive off their best creative talent on a regular basis. The team behind Xenogears had to leave SquareEnix in order to find a producer for their sequels under the Namco label, and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man behind the Final Fantasy series as well as Chrono Trigger, left the company that he helped to turn into a game development powerhouse. At one time, Sakaguchi was the president of Square, and he is widely credited as the man who was responsible for much of its success. Now he is heading up a new crew under the name of Mistwalker Studios, and they have only recently divulged his plans for the future.

After a few years of silence, in a turn of events that is just as shocking as Square's announcement years ago that they were abandoning Nintendo for the bags of money that only Sony could provide them, Sakaguchi's Mistwalker Studios has just announced that they are in the process of building two new RPGs for the successor to the X-Box. If he can muster enough creativity to make a game that's half as good as Chrono Trigger on Microsoft's not-so-secret weapon, due out later this year, then I'll be the happiest gamer on the planet. Microsoft doesn't have the financial power of the much-larger mega-corporation, Sony, but they're still a company with a respectable amount of software development resources.

Quite a bit is riding on the success of Sakaguchi's project, for if Microsoft is able to produce a worthy Japanese RPG (something that is more likely than before, with Sakaguchi on their team), they might be able to finally get a foothold on the rocky Japanese game industry. The X-Box has plenty of great titles, but of the three systems, it has a serious lack of Japanese-oriented releases. Sega and Tecmo are the only companies producing true Japanese games on the system, and while these have been some of the finest games ever made by both companies, they're not enough for the Japanese public. Sadly, they don't seem to be enough for the American public, either.

Perhaps this will change all of that.

One thing's for sure - nothing helps the industry more than healthy competition. If more companies are challenged to work harder to create games that are worthy buying, then the gamers will be the ones who benefit. Think of how horrible it would be if only one company was allowed to make RPGs, or fighting games, or any given genre. EA's Madden series was already critically lagging behind 2K Games' more impressive sports series, but instead of creating a better product, EA simply bought exclusive rights to the NFL license.

So now, there's no reason for EA to make good games - even though one could argue that they weren't making stellar games before - but now more than ever, they can afford to be lazy and force uneducated gamers to buy whatever steaming piles of code that their underpaid developers grunt out because there is simply no other choice.

Lately, I've been rather concerned about the state of the industry, for it seems that large corporations can get away with buying their way to success instead of building products that deserve to be purchased. EA's recent activities against UbiSoft and their miserly snatching of the exclusive rights to develop NFL games left a sour taste in my mouth, though I can't say that I was too happy even when Square and Enix combined forces.

I certainly couldn't have imagined the current state of gaming four years ago. If someone had told me that Sega would go to software only, that Microsoft would be a serious contender in the gaming arena, that the makers of Dragon Quest would join forces with Square, that Rare would move over to Microsoft's camp, that Resident Evil would become a Nintendo exclusive (for a while, at least), that Metroid and Panzer Dragoon would finally be resurrected (and in a very good way), or that Nintendo would release a dual-screened gaming system, I would've laughed at them and then gone back to playing Jet Set Radio.

A lot of completely unexpected events have transpired in a short period of time. I can only wonder what the future holds. Wonder and hope that it will bring me something fun to play. Maybe this means that I'll eventually get that NiGHTS sequel after all.

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